This three-part blog series presents a joint contribution from one of our TheoArtistry partnerships: Ewan Bowlby, Emily Fleming, and Hannah Palmatary. These reflections have emerged from their recent immersive performance of original poetry and musical compositions, entitled “Spirituality in Creativity: A TheoArtistry Collaboration.”
Twenty-one years of playing the violin is enough time for music to have worked its way into pretty much every area of my life. In fact, when I applied for the Classics MLitt here [in St Andrews], one of the first things I researched about the town was its orchestras. It is perhaps less surprising that I am working this weekend on an essay about music in Plato than that I have not already gotten around to asking myself, what about music in Ancient Greece? Music is a vital aspect of how I communicate with and exist with my fellow scholars and the St Andrews community, with my family, with my friends, with my God. Music is personal for me.
That’s a little solipsistic, though, isn’t it? Music is personal for you, too. Music is personal for us all. This semester working with TheoArtistry has been a delight, as Hannah and Ewan and I have read and talked together and created together. In exploring the questions they’ve articulated above by setting six poems to music, I’ve come face-to-face with even more questions about communicating through music. How do I translate ‘wistful’ into frequencies? What does the imagery of the words sound like? How do I make the poet’s fierce desire for life come alive without distracting from the profound questions he asks? Which of us will sing this? What will the accompaniment be? I’ve made a stab at these poems—a long, slow stab of thinking about them and talking about them and singing them and occasionally dreaming about them—but I still have to paraphrase Socrates and say that I’ve learned that I know nothing. Life is complicated, poetry is complicated, music is complicated. It’s all complicated, and each of us has only one life, one birth-to-death journey, to figure it out and to sing it.
The three of us talked at the beginning of the semester about what questions we had and which we might have in common: questions about the body and the soul, questions about life and death, questions about the world we live in with our five senses and the spiritual reality beyond (or within? around? above? intertwined with?) it. The responses presented in our performance are diverse, and they are not authoritative. What they aspire to be is honest: honest in asking questions, honest in acknowledging the pain and the struggle of life, and honest in recognizing the beauty around and within us. Implicitly or explicitly many of them challenge each other, as the perspectives within challenged me while I was working on them.
Our performance is (thankfully!) not about the quality of my singing voice, but about the voices of the body and the soul coming together in poetry and in music. You, the listener, the reader, the singer of your own song—you may not be in harmony your whole life with one or two or any of the perspectives represented in these poems. I’m not sure if you could be in harmony with all of them at the same time. My attempt was not to attempt to synthesize them into a single, universal, permanent ‘human experience’ but to give the voices of these various poets new dimensions of melody and rhythm. Part of the gift of music is that it allows us not only to embrace and express our own experiences, but also to enter other people’s, just for a few minutes. I hope that you enjoy what we’ve put together, and I hope that our research will be provocative as you think and feel your way through your own, personal questions and answers.
Now I hear the music in my head as I with a question from Mary Oliver’s ‘The Summer Day’:
‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’
Emily Fleming will graduate this fall with an MLitt in Classics. She appreciates the many opportunities for music-making she has had during her year in St Andrews: the University of St Andrews Chamber Orchestra, The Marriage of Figaro, the St Andrews Free Church, and this TheoArtistry collaboration.